A Language for the Literature

By Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH

BreakingBoundariesI am on a hunt. I am searching for the variety of ways international literature might be conceptualized by teacher educators, teachers, and teacher candidates. I am also interested in the ways in which they might address and differentiate between international and multicultural literature as well as how they perceive various other terms that might be used for literature that, well, transcends its native borders. I became interested in such a venture because it seemed as though as much as I discussed what I suggested was the difference between, say, “international” and “multicultural” literature, the terms and their nuances seldom transferred to my students. Was I not trying hard enough? Was I being too esoteric? Needless to say, I found the phenomenon intriguing, and so thought I would broach the topic via WOW Currents.

Imagine the complexity of attempting to distinguish for a student, regardless of grade or age, the terms commonly used by educators and academics for:
• international literature,
• multicultural literature,
• global literature,
• cross-cultural literature,
• culturally diverse literature, and
• ethnic literature.

Seems somewhat ponderous considering that when I went to “google” all I discovered was that “international literature” has no easy definition, however, I found much to my delight, that someone else has already gone to children’s literature textbooks to parse out the various ways some types of the literature I mentioned have been defined. Take a look . . . it seems the topic has been covered!

Or has it?

The article is really helpful, but I think even after reading the review, there is still the question of international literature.

Merriam Webster has no definition for international literature. Hadaway and McKenna (2007) address the concept of international literature and its relationship to both multicultural and global literature that falls closest to my idea of international literature. Their text, Breaking Boundaries with Global Literature can be previewed.

And then there is the editor’s note to an issue of Children’s Literature (23) where Henderson (1995) summarizes the journal’s discussion of defining the canon of African American literature, highlighting the following in respects to international literature, bringing into relief another way to define international literature.

Finally, this special issue concludes with Dianne Johnson’s “The International Context of African-American Children’s Literature.” Johnson examines the international and diasporic manifestations of African-American literature for children through analysis of DuBois and Dill’s The Brownies’ Book magazine, noting the “acculturating, socializing, and educating [of] African-American children as United States and world citizens” (112) through the discussion of serious social and psychological issues in the magazine. This discussion reflected the publishers’ concern with world affairs and the need to inform African-American children with detailed and complex reporting about issues and interconnections of decision making and action. Johnson continues her discussion of the international context by focusing on works from the 1970s and 1980s by such authors as Rosa Guy, Lucille Clifton, Walter Dean Myers, and Tom and Muriel Feelings, who have reached an international audience with their books. Johnson concludes,

African-American children’s literature is an international literature not solely by force of definition, but because of the conscious and deliberate visions of a succession of writers and artists who from the emerging stages of this canon saw . . . the world as a place in which word and images together can help people to be honest about who they are in both a personal and social/political, and thus, international context (116).

How would you define international literature? How would you define in relation to multicultural literature? How is the literature defined in practice? Especially to K-12 students. Is the differentiation important? And, if so, why? What are the ways that could help teachers and teacher educators make these distinctions known to our students in an engaging manner so they took the nuances to heart and understood that the differences are important, that they mean something? Do we need to come to consensus or is the discussion what matters? And if so, how then do we bring our students, regardless of grade level or age, into the conversation?

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6 thoughts on “A Language for the Literature

  1. Barbara Thompson Book says:

    This issue has been one that has made me think since a discussion I was a part of back in the 1990s at U of A with Richard Ruiz. He maintained that every book in and of itself is a cultural article related to the environment in which it was produced, and therefore there could not be “multicultural” literature because a book can’t be more than one culture. So the question is are we talking about groups of books or a book in and of itself? I’ve never really been able to decide. I know my students think of multicultural as anything that has a character that is not of their ethnicity. Thus when I started talking about international literature, that gave them pause. Good luck with your quest.

  2. Janine Schall says:

    I’ve been thinking about the same issue as I work with manuscripts submitted for WOW Stories: Connections from the Classroom since the intent of the journal is to show how teachers are using international literature and helping students make intercultural connections. Is a book “multicultural literature” in one context and “international literature” in another context? Can a book be just a regular book in some situations, but an international book in others? If a child is born in Ireland, attends school in Mauritius, and is reading a book about African-Americans that was published in the United States how do we define that book? (Do we need to define it?)

  3. Holly Johnson says:

    Hey! Great comments, Barb and Janine. Your questions are as provoking as the ones with which I started! Barb, I see multicultural literature as a body of literature and so when we talk one text, it would seem difficult to think of it as multicultural literature. There are times, however, when there is cross-cultural engagements or interactions, including conflicts, that could have folks suggesting the book is multicultural. Tough call. I agree with the assessment of each book being a cultural artifact, and that each text should be considered such. Take a look at my next entry about that and social responsibility!

    Janine, the need to define is indeed the question that I am left considering. I like the idea that it depends on the usage of the text as a way of working with the concept of international literature. I think any text could be “regular” and also international depending upon context. You example of the text being read by a student born in one country but studying in another addresses the idea of context and usage for me. Is the student reading it for a class assignment and how was it introduced by the teacher? Am I getting too detailed and worrisome, I wonder? Great question to ponder though, so thanks, Janine, for your provocation!

  4. Ragina Shearer says:

    I have been struggling, trying to determine which is which, they are all so overlapping. As a teacher, I enjoy sharing “multicultural” literature with my students, but as I do this I have tried to affirm that each of them comes from a culture so to speak. I have found Anglo American children find it hard to understand that they are a culture and a part of a multicultural society, each culture should be valued. Perhaps I see multicultural literature study as an overview of all the different cultures, which would include Anglos. If it does not are we making them something special and unique, on top of every one else and the “normal” with which to determine is everyone else multicultural? As Americans I feel we view international literature as any literature other than from the US. Yet looking at it from a global perspective, the US would be included as international. I really am struggling to find the separation among these three (multicultural, international, and global). Every place I read seems to have as overlapping an answer as I perceive myself. What do you see as a simple straightforward definition to each of these?

  5. mathew says:

    cultural” literature with my students, but as I do this I have tried to affirm that each of them comes from a culture so to sp

  6. Roberta Robinson says:

    After several years of research my understanding is that multicultural literature grew out of the Civil Rights Movement and addresses the sociocultural experiences of those who fall outside the mainstream within the United States. Multicultural literature includes categories of race, gender, sexual orientation and disability.
    For me personally, global literature is literature about the lives of people living outside the United States by authors from the culture they are writing about or by authors who are intimately familiar with the culture they are writing about because they have lived and/or worked within that culture.
    The use of “international literature” for me is much more difficult to define. I created an annotated bibliography of elementary level Middle East and Arab World themed literature. There are 95 books in the children’s section and within that list are several bilingual books, but I do not think of them as international literature. Perhaps “International literature” is a term best left to describe translated works circulated internationally.

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